Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

When I was a high school senior, I crushed hard on a pair of silver Chucks in our mall’s shoe store.  Those sneakers sparkled under the fluorescents like they were calling to my punk, grunge-girl heart. I can’t tell you how much they cost, only that they cost more than I could afford. 
 
For months, I visited them and daydreamed about the compliments I’d get and how well they’d go with my thrift-store skirts—especially the ones I called my granny camo. 
 
I still think those Chucks are pretty rad, but I’m now at an age where my shoes need arches. 
 
Some of you might be thinking, silver Chucks, really?
 
If you are, that’s great! Style—whether it’s in clothing or writing—is extremely personal. 
 
In writing, style involves word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm. While authenticitytruth, and perspective require you to explore something inside of yourself, style is definitely a skill learned over time.   
 
When I think of writing style, three authors come to mind.
 
First, there’s twentieth-century poet e.e. cummings, who wrote 

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
 
Cummings refused to capitalize anything, including the letter I, in hopes of decreasing the importance of the self in his work. 
 
Then there’s the Hemmingway/Faulkner debate. Faulkner famously wrote a 1,288-word run-on sentence in Absalom, Absalom! Hemmingway’s spartan style is frequently associated with a six-word story—For sale: baby shoes, never worn—that may not actually be his. 

While modern audiences tend to prefer leaner writing (check out the Hemmingway Editor App) you don’t have to become a Hemmingway disciple. You do need to understand your style. 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Scroll through your files and select a piece of writing that exemplifies your best work. Print a hard copy. 
 
Next, record yourself reading the piece out loud. 
 
Close your eyes and play the recording. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences. Do they gallop, trot along, or lazily amble by? Do certain sounds stand out? 
 
Now, play the recording while you follow along with your hard copy. What do you notice about the length of your sentences and your use of white space? What on the page enhances your story? 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Choose three authors you admire. Copy a few paragraphs of their work by hand. Handwriting each word will help you get a feel for the writing and the length of the writer’s sentences. 
 
Record yourself reading this work. Close your eyes and listen to your recording. What do you notice? 
 
Listen back again while following along with your hard copy. See anything else? 
 
Jot down your answers and reflect on what they tell you about your own writing style. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Consider writing some of your prose in a favorite author’s style to see how it feels. Then try another author. Notice what feels authentic. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Then practice, practice, practice your art form.  
 
While I hope you’ll focus largely on writers in your genre, be sure to check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And, while you’re at it, subscribe to Poetry Daily and see how poets approach this work.
 
Which authors do you turn to when learning about style? Send me their names. I’d love to know, and your answer might inspire someone else. 

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Do you know what color glasses you’re wearing when you sit down to write? 

Not sure? 

For a long time, I struggled with this too. 
 
In writing, we approach our stories from a particular angle that’s driven by our authentic self. The details you capture or exclude create a tone your writing projects–like glasses with a colored lens. That tone could be darkly humorous, serious, or cynical. 
 
Tone is the attitude we take in our writing. It’s closely aligned with perspective. 
 
To understand perspective, and its relationship to tone, try this exercise with a partner: 

  • Take a picture of a house in your neighborhood and share it with your partner. 
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write descriptions of that house. 
  • Next, describe the house as if you’re standing next to a new lover. 
  • Finally, describe the house as if you’re a soldier who’s just returned from battle.  

 
I bet each description focuses on a slightly different aspect of the house. Those variations come from the character’s lens. Now, notice the similarities between the three descriptions. Those similarities arise from your voice as a writer. The emotional feel of those details is your tone. 

Now, share your descriptions with your partner. 
 
How does their lens compare to yours? 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Return to the social media posts I asked you to save. Weed out the cat and kid pictures. Find the ones where you wrote something that truly represents you. Notice the similarities. Are they funny, impassioned, or serious? 
 
That general tone is an element of the real you. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Identify the authors on your bookshelf whose lens is similar to your own. If nothing sticks out, drop by your local independent bookstore and ask the salesclerk for some recommendations. As you read selected works, underline the sentences that have the most voice. Write a few down. Journal about why this author’s voice works well. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 

Now that you have a sense of your lens, figure out what you need to do harness its power. Study the masters, read craft articles, and then write, write, write. 
 
What tone patterns did you notice in your social media posts? Send me an email so I can hear what you learned.   

Looking for more voice lessons? 

Voice Lesson One: The Courage to Be True

Voice Lesson Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

I spent the summer of 1984 being my own twin cousin. I was ten. My mom had just chopped my long hair into a shoulder-length bob.

After crying about my uneven bangs, I put on a pair of white plastic sunglasses, stuffed three sticks of Doublemint gum into my mouth, and introduced myself as twin cousin Jennifer from Oswego. 

A few kids were skeptical of my twin-cousin claims, but I answered their questions about my likes (swearing, climbing apple trees, reading Cosmo) and dislikes (playing with sticks, messing with ants, and answering questions).

When they asked how we could be twins if we didn’t have the same mother, I told them our mothers shared a mother and that was pretty much the same thing. 

Without the Internet to debunk my theory, kids agreed to call me Jennifer. 

In becoming someone else, I began to see who I really was. 

Your first voice lesson was about finding your courage

Here’s lesson number two: To find your voice, you have to know who you are. 

Some people think having a voice means turning on the sass, revealing your master’s in slang, or dispensing f-bombs like they’re PEZ candy. Others think you need to be gonzo like Hunter S. Thompson and tell counter-culture stories in strange accents. 

If you’re not gonzo or sassy, trying to write as if you are is like wearing a mask to work. There will be weird looks. When you try to convince someone your mask’s rhino horn is actually part of your forehead, someone will call bullshit. 

Be yourself instead.

Here’s your inner work: 

Exercise #1: What word do you use to describe that piece of furniture in your living room? Couch? Sofa? Davenport? Divan? Love seat? Rumpus Machine? 

There’s no shame in being a couch or sofa person. If you say divan or rumpus machinen, own it. Just begin to notice what language you naturally use. 

Exercise #2: Flip through your real or virtual photo albums. Pay attention to your style. While some fashion choices, like jelly sandals or MC Hammer pants, might have changed, I bet a few things remain the same. Perhaps it’s the cut of your clothes or your color palette. That something that remains the same is likely an aspect of your authentic self. 

Exercise #3: Make a list of adjectives that describe you. 

Exercise #4: Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • Who am I?
  • What are my passions?
  • How do I see the world?
  • If I could follow my bliss, what would that look like? 

 
Here’s your outer work: 

Exercise #1: Make a list of 3 or 4 animals that could represent you. Share the list with a group of friends and ask them which one they’d choose and why. Compare their answers to the adjectives you’ve chosen for yourself. 

Exercise #2: Scroll through your social media posts. Find the ones you’ve written that have the most likes. Copy and paste these posts into a document. Note which ones seem like they represent your authentic voice. We’ll come back to this document later in the month. 

Here’s your writing work: 

Author and entrepreneur Marie Forleo believes writing it rude will help you find your voice. Here’s what she means. Write your shitty first draft as if no one is going to read it. Pump it full of opinions and emotions. Say it with feeling and don’t worry about who’ll get hurt. 

In that passionate place, you’re most likely to write from your authentic voice. Underline the sentences that truly communicate your message, then revise, revise, revise to get the rest right.

When you revise, leave your voice in but take the rude out. As Marie says, the best writing comes from a place of both passion and compassion. 
 
Authenticity is a journey, not a destination. And. it’s important because you’re important. 

Take it from Martha Graham:
 

“There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” 

 
If you did the animal exercise, send me an email and let me know which one your friends chose. I’d love to know. 

Voice Lesson Number One: Have The Courage To Be True

Voice Lesson Number One: Have The Courage To Be True

I can’t breathe. 
 
These were some of the last words spoken by George Floyd. Sadly, he’s not the only black man to have said them. 
 
My feelings about the incident are clear. Black lives matter. Institutional racism is a serious problem that must be addressed. Together, we can end these senseless deaths. 
 
When I heard about Floyd’s death, I wanted to say something that honors the pain of my black and brown friends and family members while also admitting a hard truth: my privilege is part of the problem. 
 
Actually, admitting my white privilege is easy for me. 
 
What’s difficult to admit is how the shame behind my privilege sometimes makes it difficult to do the work required to end racism. 
 
In her podcast, “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” Ann Hood says we should not just write about what keeps us up at night, but “Always say the hardest thing—the thing you don’t even know you feel.” 
 
Expressing the thing you don’t even know you feel is the essence of any great piece of writing. 
 
These deep truths are often discovered through the body. We write them and our throats tighten, our chests ache, or tears form in our eyes. 
 
Hard truths resonate with readers. To write them takes courage.  
 
Here’s your first voice lesson: To cultivate truth in your voice, you need to find the courage to: 

  • Dig a little deeper
  • Let go of being likable
  • Develop a willingness to be vulnerable 
  • Make friends with your fears 
  • Say your truth your way 

Here’s your inner work. 
 
Courage comes from the Latin word for heart. To write with courage is to write from the heart.  
 
Feedback can help you dive below the superficial points in a writing project. Insights that sting or raise your hackles can signal there’s more to explore. If you get uncomfortable feedback, take a break and practice self-care. When you’re feeling better, return to the work and journal about whether the reader has a point and why you might be struggling to hear their message.
 
As you do this, let go of likeability. Attempting to writing for everyone leads to bland work that’s likely to be ignored. Instead, have the courage to speak your truth. 
 
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The deepest truths fit this definition. Treat them with the utmost respect and refuse to give them away for cheap reasons like platform building or going viral. Instead of overexposing yourself by letting it all hang out on the page, make sure your vulnerability has a clear purpose. 
 
If you plan to publish a vulnerable piece, ask yourself the following questions
 
How does publishing this work serve my audience? 
Does it enlighten, connect, or comfort readers? 
Does it add to an important conversation? 
 
Writer Dorothy Bernard says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” The most courageous people are not fearless, they are people who walk with their fears. If you want to create a strong, powerful voice, befriend your fears. 
 
As you do this inner work, connect with other writers who can support your growth
 
Once you’ve articulated that hardest thing, find your way of saying it. Your way comes from a place of authenticity, which is lesson number two. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Re-read something by an author you admire. Identify the hard truths in their stories. Ask yourself what it might take for you to share something similar. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Set a timer for ten minutes. Write about a topic related to your work in progress. 
 
Pause and then write if I were to go a little deeper.
 
Set a timer for five minutes and keep going. 
 
When the bell rings, write I don’t want to write about . . . 
 
Write for ten more minutes. Then practice self-care. 
 
And, if you’re looking for ways to become a better ally to the black community, here are a few educational resources: 

 
Here are some additional things you can do:  

  • Read works by authors of color and sharing them on social media.
  • Support black businesses in your area
  • Donate money to charities that support the interests and wellbeing of people of color. 

If we use our voices courageously, we can become the change we want to see in this world. 
 
What helps you have courage? Send me an email. I’d really like to know. 

Voice Lessons

Voice Lessons

In my late twenties, I taught middle school. Like many teachers, I suffered from an annual case of laryngitis. My first bout appeared on the Monday after Christmas break. Reluctant to take more time off, I tried to muscle through the illness. Two days in, I lost my voice. The pain was so bad I couldn’t even whisper.  
 
Six months ago, I met a writer who’d stopped writing. “I’ve got nothing to say,” she said, tracing circles in her empty notebook. “I mean, who am I to write about X important topic? Sure, I have thoughts, but no one wants to hear from me. Besides, I’ll probably get it wrong.” 
 
I nodded, having felt that way before. But as I watched this talented, charismatic writer sell herself short, all I could think of was that terrible case of laryngitis. 
 
She’d lost her writing voice, and it was stifling her creativity. 
 
Do you know what I mean by voice? 
 
Have setbacks, a lack of confidence, or recent events silenced you, or kept you from forming one? 
 
This month, I’m going to share my four pillars of voice and how you can use them to write your very best work. 
 
Let’s start with the basics.
 
According to agent Rachel Gardner, voice is “the expression of you on the page.” It’s the quality of writing that lets you pick a Mary Karr memoir or a Stephen King novel from a lineup of manuscripts. 
 
Some people believe voice is an ineffable quality inherent in the writer—the je ne sais quoi that makes your work distinctly yours. Most writers work their buns off to cultivate that je ne sais quoi. 
 
Truly finding and developing one requires introspection and investigation into who you are, what (and how) you write, and which writers you admire. Most importantly, it requires you to write, write, and then write some more.  
 
Your first lesson is about courage. 

Meditations for Every Stage in the Writing Process

Meditations for Every Stage in the Writing Process

Have I told you about my first internal editor? His name was Ronny. Ronny was an asshole. Every time I sat at my desk, he whispered in my ear. 
 
“This sucks, Lisa.” 
“Don’t quit your day job, Lisa.” 
“No one loves you.”  
 
I fired Ronny a few years ago. 
 
My new internal editor is Sophia. Her voice reminds me of spring. Instead of pounding me into a pit of shame, Sophia cheers me on. When I worry that my writing sucks and move to throw it out, she tells me to get over myself.

“Of course, the work sucks right now,” she says. “You’re working on a first draft!” 
 
As I edit, Sophia is my copilot. She pokes my ribs when something’s not working and encourages me to go for walks when I’m stuck.
 
How did I go from a Ronny to a Sophia? 

Meditation. 
 
But not just any meditation. 

A year of loving-kindness meditation kicked Ronny to the curb. Sometimes called Metta meditation, loving-kindness helps you develop greater compassion for yourself and others.
 
Metta is great for writer’s block, working through career-related decisions, and keeping calm once your work has been published. 
 
Metta is just one of many meditation practices you can use to enhance your writing life. The list below contains the ones I use at different stages in the writing process. When possible, I’ve provided links. To learn about others, like the centering meditation, send me an email
 
Meditations for Drafting 

 Why they work: The first four meditations ground you in the present moment. During walking meditations, you swing your arms across your midline, which improves communication between the left brain (logic) and the right brain (creativity). Visualization-based meditations that focus on your project can help you get in touch with your characters and their motivations. 

Meditations for Revision 

Why they work: These meditations train you to pay attention to fine details, which is revision job number one. We often think of revision as a mental exercise, but your gut is actually your wisdom center. Body scans can dial you into that body wisdom. As you revise, you might even feel a poke in your ribs or a tug in your gut when you encounter work that needs extra attention. 

 
Meditations for Writer’s Block and Motivation 

  • Metta meditation
  • Soften, Soothe, Allow by Kristin Neff 
  • Centering Meditation 
  • Mantra meditation where you repeat “My creativity matters.”

Why they work: Writer’s block and flagging motivation often have the same causes: doubt and/or perfectionism. These meditations increase your sense of self-compassion and soothe away the fears and doubts stymieing your creativity. 

Have a favorite meditation? Add it to the comments. 

Suck at Meditation? Try Lowering Your Standards.

Suck at Meditation? Try Lowering Your Standards.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve always sucked at meditation. 
 
While attending Buddhist meetings as a kid, I admired the adults who could chant for hours without concern for the time or their circulation. I had no idea how they maintained their laser-like focus. 
 
When we were supposed to concentrate on world peace, my mind was a jungle gym of ideas and worries about how long this was taking or whether kneeling on my feet would cause them to fall off. After a few seconds of focused prayer, my mind was off to the races. 
 
Over the years, I came to understand the various stages of sleeping feet from the pin-like tingles to the rush of blood that causes you to lose your breath to that moment when your foot feels dead.  Sometimes, I’d try to invoke a different sleepy foot stage during these meditations just to pass the time. 
 
I was too ashamed to share my experiences with the adults around me. I just figured I was a lousy meditator. 
 
My mind can still be a jungle gym of ideas. Sometimes when I’m meditating it’s hard to sit still, or some part of me will itch like I’ve been stung by a bee. These things are more likely to happen if I’m tired, worried, or not feeling well. 
 
After years of study, here’s what I learned: 
 
There are no meditation heroes. Sure, there are gurus and religious leaders like the Dalai Lama who are meditation pros. But even they struggle from time to time. Instead of trying to meditate perfectly, let each session be its own experiment. 

The rush of thoughts, wiggles, and those tickly, itchy feelings are completely normal. The brain’s main job is to keep you safe. It does this by making up stories about your experiences. Sometimes it ruminates on the past so it can learn from its mistakes. Other times, it rehearses future events to help you be more successful. When focusing on the present moment, sometimes you can actually feel your nerves activating. Hence that itchy feeling.  

If you’re a wiggly person who hates sitting meditations, try movement. Kristin Neff has a great standing meditation called Soles of the Feet. Many writers find a good walk solves their writing problems. If that’s you, give walking meditation a try. Walking meditations tend to enhance problem-solving because you are swinging your arms across your midline.  
 
The goal of mindfulness meditation is simply to give your mind a choice. That moment when you notice you’ve been focusing on all the brands of toilet paper you wish you could buy and then say to yourself, “Oh wait, I’m meditating” is your victory. Savor it and keep telling yourself that attaining this realization is enough. 
 
Do you suck at meditating too? What’s your meditation pet peeve? Share it in the comments. 

Three Reasons Why Meditation Is Good for Your Writing Practice

Three Reasons Why Meditation Is Good for Your Writing Practice

When I was in high school, my neighbors believed I worshipped the devil. It was the mid-1980s. We lived in a rural upstate New York town obsessed with Geraldo Rivera’s exposé “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.”
 
It probably didn’t help that: 

  • my brothers and I blasted Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” from our stereo whenever our parents weren’t home, or
  • that I frequently wore black to protest the many international conflicts our president started, or
  • that my brother had told a few neighborhood bullies we were Voodists with magical powers. “Mess with us and Lisa will chant at you. Then you’ll get bad karma and die,” he frequently said. Often, this was followed by “Lisa, show them.” Sometimes, I did.

 
My mom converted to Buddhism when I was eight. I loved the exotic sounds and smells of this religion that promised a better, more peaceful life. Plus, the Buddhists smiled a lot and fed us candy. Our practice consisted of twice-daily chanting meditations for world peace.
 
I was fifteen when the devil worship cries began. A friend on my school bus asked what church I attended. I proudly said I was Buddhist and asked if she wanted to know more. A few days later, her mother gave me a pile of books on the follies of evolution and the dangers of cults. Two weeks later, I returned her unread books. When I politely declined her church invitation, she responded with the stink eye. 
 
At the time, I chanted with my mother every evening from 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM. This was common knowledge. For years, neighborhood kids had listened to our voices on hot summer nights. 
 
After my church refusal, the neighbor invited all the nearby kids to her house so she could warn them about the evil lurking in our duplex village. The evening after her meeting, a new ritual began. When Mom called me in for our evening mediation, neighborhood kids morphed into little town criers. 
 
“The devil worshiper is worshipping. The devil worshiper is worshiping,” they yelled. 
 
Kids gathered on the curb across from our house. A few minutes into our meditation one of them yelled, “Devil worshipper, are you worshipping?” His young voice pleaded for some kind of satanic action.
 
I responded by chanting louder and ringing our meditation bell.  (I was 15. What did you expect?)
 
Soon boredom set in and they scattered. 
 
A lot has changed since the 1980s. 
 
Information about Buddhism abounds. Meditation has been scientifically validated as an activity that reduces stress, increases a sense of focus, and improves mood. How I practice meditation has changed over the years, but its importance in my life remains the same. 
 
I teach meditation in all of my writing classes. The techniques I offer are simple, mindfulness-based meditations with no connections to any religion. They are designed to prepare writers for specific writing tasks.   

So, why do I teach my students to meditate? 
 
Mindfulness meditation helps writers in three ways. 
 
1.     Throat clearing: ‘Throat clearing’ is akin to starting a car built before 1980 on a cold morning. You have to run the engine before setting off down the road. Writing requires a similar warmup. You have to clear out the disconnected, convoluted ideas before you can get to the good stuff. Pandemic-filled newscasts make throat clearing essential. 

2. Accessing internal wisdom: When your mind is clear, you’re better able to judge what you have the emotional energy for working on. You’ll treat yourself with greater kindness and work on challenging material more effectively.  Also, your B.S. meter is more likely to go off when your work is inauthentic. Practice regularly and the real story you’d like to tell will bubble to the surface.  

3. Brain priming: When meditation is part of your regular writing practice, it can prime the brain for creativity. Over time, you’ll experience less resistance when sitting down to write and have an easier time accessing your ideas.  

There are many ways to develop a mindful writing practice.  Here are a few suggestions.
 
Before you write:

  1. Set a timer for five minutes. If that feels impossibly long, try one minute.
  2. Sit in a comfortable position. Generally, this means placing your feet securely on the floor. Rest your hands on your lap.
  3. Close your eyes or develop a soft gaze toward whatever is in front of you.
  4. Now you have some choices: 
    • You could focus on the breaths coming out of your nostrils,
    • repeat a mantra in your head like “my creativity matters,”
    • count your breaths, starting at one and ending at ten and then repeating this process, or
    • listen to a guided meditation on an app like Insight Timer.
  5. Write as you normally would.

Here’s my best meditation advice: Find a practice you love.

Ideally, this practice should align with your views and tolerance for sitting still. This month, I’ll share a few meditation techniques for various stages in the writing process. Try the ones you like and disregard the rest. There’s no need to convert to Buddhism or any other religion. I promise, no one will stand outside your door and ask if you’re worshipping the devil.

 
Have you ever been falsely accused of something?

How did you handle it?  Leave your answer in the comments. 

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Last weekend my husband cut his finger while replacing the blade on his not-so-safe safety razor. By the time I reached the bathroom, the place looked like a murder scene. We wrapped the wound and hoped for the best. An hour later, it was still bleeding. Next stop: urgent care. 
 
Sitting in the urgent care parking lot was the starkest reminder I’d had that things had changed. 
 
He had to call to enter. Masks were required. His temperature was taken at the door. I was instructed to wait in the car. His wound required four stitches. Fortunately, it’s healing well. 
 
Every day, I hear people say they can’t wait until we can get back to normal. Hell, I find myself saying this. Who doesn’t want to grocery shop without fear or walk the neighborhood mask-free? 
 
What I crave is what Dr. Fauci calls “the original way.” I really like this term. “Normal” means we’re living life wrong. “Original way” suggests variations are acceptable. 
 
I also hear this on a regular basis: My project is no longer relevant. Our world has changed. Pre-COVID stories no longer matter. 
 
Not everything in life has to do with COVID19.
 
Babies are being born. Careers are beginning. People are dying of non-COVID causes. Somewhere someone is embarking on a fabulous adventure, even if that trip is simply a journey within. 
 
Your project contains a universal truth that’s still relevant. 

 

Find that universal. Stick it on a Post-It note. Read it every day. Write and revise toward that aim. Unclear on your universal?  Ask yourself the following question:  What’s the one emotion in my story everyone can relate to? Still not sure? Keep writing. 
 
Maybe you’ll find a “new original” for your project.
 
This new original won’t necessarily include COVID19 or pandemic scenes. Instead, it will retain your original narrative arc while also being sensitive to our collective experiences of fear, loss, and a search for meaning.  

If you’re looking for a way to find that new universal, consider signing up for the Thursday section of Writing Through Challenging Times. Class begins on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 1:00 PM EDT.

 

Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Your Creativity During a Pandemic

Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Your Creativity During a Pandemic

This post was originally published on the Jane Friedman Blog
on Friday, April 3, 2020.

Quarantine day one. I sit at my desk and hold my pen. Nothing happens.

Quarantine day two. I stare at my computer screen and wonder what the hell is wrong. I mean, I wrote through Lyme disease, even on the days when my brain barely worked.

Quarantine day three. I scribble in my notebook. There are no words even though I feel so full of words I might explode.

Quarantine day four: I scribble and remember that time my dad said, “Don’t be so sensitive,” as if my greatest gift was really a curse. As my pen slides across the page, I realize I’m saying this very thing to myself. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be so sensitive even though it feels like the world is falling apart.

Maybe you’re sensitive too. Maybe all this suffering hurts deep in your marrow. Maybe the fear is like lightening coursing through your nerves. Maybe you’re expecting yourself to write as if this is not happening, somehow thinking all this free time will make you more productive.

All writing requires a certain amount of heart space. We tap into our feelings and memories so readers can inhabit our story worlds. Keeping your heart open enough to do this requires an energy reserve large enough to feel and deal with daily life.

Creative nonfiction, which often mines from our most painful experiences, requires an even bigger reserve.

Right now, our hearts are filled with COVID-19 cases and deaths, and which relative might be at risk, or which grocery store has the food I can eat—or better yet, toilet paper—or how much space is required to actually socially distance or how I will get paid or when will this end.

The bottom two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs include our physical needs for food, water, warmth and rest as well as security. The top rung—self-actualization—is where creativity happens. Many of us are just not there, yet.

So, what do you do when your creative desires don’t match your rung?

  • Focus on those bottom-rung needs. Make sure you have enough healthy food to eat. Rest more than you think you need. Turn your house into a sanctuary. Exercise outside when possible.
  • Help yourself feel safe. Stay home as much as you can. Wash your hands. Limit your news intake. Journal about your fears so they can live on the page instead of inside you. Develop a gratitude practice that helps you pay attention to what is going well.
  • Tap into your wisdom. Practice meditation. Download the Insight Timer app on your phone. Set aside some time to just breathe. If you’re looking for a guide, consider Tara Brach or sign up for Deepak Chopra’s free 21-day meditation challenge. If sitting feels impossible, try walking meditations or join that YouTube yoga class everyone’s talking about.
  • Accept what is. We are living through a pandemic. If your mind is swirling with worries, or your day is focused on getting the kids to do that one online lesson, or you’re trying to figure out how to pay your rent, you’re not wasting your creative time. You’re just living from the bottom rung. Before you can climb, you have to make sure your current rung is sturdy enough to support you.
  • Keep showing up. Sit at your desk and try to write. If your work-in-progress calls to you, say thank you. If there’s silence, thank your unconscious for reminding you to practice self-care. Have faith that your pre-COVID-19 projects are still valuable. You will return to them when the time is right.
  • Pivot. Maybe now is not the time to work on your memoir or the novel that taps into a deep emotional vein. Keep a journal. Write a blog post or essay. Try poetry or fiction. Switching genres might help you exercise the heart space that is available for creativity.

There is strength in numbers, so I’m offering a mindfulness-based writing class, Writing Through Challenging Times. It’s a class about pivoting and playing and activating our internal wisdom. We’ll commit to self-care and perform acts of kindness in their communities. Each week, we’ll sit at our desks and try. Some of us will scribble a few words. Others will jot down new ideas. A few will dive into their works in progress. Old messages will surface. Together, we’ll combat them. Success depends only on showing up. As a team, we’ll rebuild our energy reserves. In the process, creativity will happen.

What practices or methods have helped you during this challenging spring? Share with us in the comments.

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